Off topic: Small world?
Thread poster: Tina Colquhoun

Tina Colquhoun  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:55
Member (2005)
Danish to English
+ ...
Oct 4, 2007

From The Sunday Times
September 30, 2007

Embarrassing travel gaffes

It might be a small world, but there are still many ways to get yourself in trouble - so steer clear of offensive faux pas

Heard the one about a worldwide survey conducted by the UN? The only question asked was: “Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?”

The survey was a failure. In Africa they didn’t know what “food” meant; in India they didn’t know what “honest” meant; in Europe they didn’t know what “shortage” meant; in China they didn’t know what “opinion” meant; in the Middle East they didn’t know what “solution” meant; in South America they didn’t know what “please” meant; and in the USA they didn’t know what “the rest of the world” meant.

This wry tale, circulated on the web by disaffected UN staff, highlights a central problem of our high-tech, easily spanned globe. A woman in Latvia can communicate in a second with a man in Patagonia, and, if she wants to, fly to see him in 24 hours, but no amount of modern technology can prepare you for age-old local manners and attitudes that remain set in stone. And as more of us venture to more varied destinations, the possibility of making an embarrassing or downright offensive faux pas becomes ever more frequent.

In general, it’s best, when travelling, to avoid politics, except in a spirit of tentative, open-minded inquiry. Be careful, in particular, about discussing adjacent countries. Whatever they say, New Zealanders don’t like being mistaken for Australians, and Canadians hate to be thought American (especially if they’re wearing one of those little maple-leaf things on their lapels). Indians won’t be happy if you confuse them with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans, while Bolivians don’t warm to praise of any of their neighbours – having lost wars with all of them.

“What’s the best way to make a fortune?”’ ask the Uruguayans. “‘Buy an Argentinian for what he’s worth, then sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.”’ In China, keep off current events, and indeed anything controversial. Political nonos include, of course, Tibet, as well as referring to Taiwan as the Republic of China, or, worse, “Free China”. In Arab countries, be wary of talking about the Persian Gulf: many prefer to call it the Arabian Gulf (al-Khalij al).
Being critical of the country you’re visiting, even in jest, is a mistake: Scandinavians, for example, get very weary of outsiders telling them how high their cost of living is. They already know.

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” remains wise counsel. But don’t take it too far – copying local ways of behaving can render you ridiculous. Many Argentinians summon waiters with a loud, lip-smacking kissing noise, but this wouldn’t go down well if it came from an outsider. Australians say “G’day” to each other but can react oddly when they hear the greeting repeated by visitors. Americans from the Deep South feel the same way about outsiders copying their drawling use of “Y’all”.

The temptation for thoughtful visitors to try to speak the host language can be strong, and the gesture is often appreciated. In countries such as Denmark or Botswana, where the native language is unlikely to be used elsewhere, the clumsiest “tak” or “dumela” will bring a smile for your effort. Russians, too, will love your peculiar-sounding attempts to fit in.
But in other, prouder cultures, inadequate efforts may only annoy. Those who’ve tried out their half-remembered GCSE French on a busy Parisian waiter will confirm this. In France in general, unless you speak good French with confidence, your counterparts would probably prefer you to speak English clearly – after a short apology for not being able to speak French, of course.

The risk of getting it badly wrong jumps up a number of levels when you try to tackle languages such as Chinese or Japanese, where correct pronunciation is crucial. Your carefully rehearsed phrase may come out meaning something entirely different, like that of the Americans who toasted their Chinese hosts with the prepared line “Thank you very much for the dinner. I am so full I must loosen my belt”, which poor pronunciation rendered as “Thank you very much for dinner. The girth of my donkey’s saddle is loose”.

In France, questions of the “Are you married?”, “Do you have children?” variety would be considered far too personal on a first meeting. But in the Arab world, these are the appropriate things to ask about. In Asia, likewise, you may quiz people about their age, the age of their spouse, even how much their watch cost – subjects that would be out of order straight off the bat in supposedly forthright North America. In the Far East, such inquiries can be even more intrusive. “How much money do you earn?” or “How large is your house?” would not be considered beyond the pale in Vietnam, Japan or the Philippines.
In Africa, you may have to accept not just questions of the “Are you married?” variety, but advice, too. “Why are you not married?” may be followed by a long insistent wail of “You must marry. You must have children. Who will inherit your house, your car?” In Muslim countries, at least there is a useful answer for this kind of approach: “Allah has not blessed me yet. I wait with patience.”

Israelis are famously direct. They may not only ask you extremely personal questions, but also weigh in immediately with advice. “How much did that suit cost you?” could easily be followed by: “You paid too much.” Don’t let this or any other form of brusque public behaviour bother you: Jews born in Israel refer to themselves as sabra, which is the name of the indigenous “cactus fruit” of the Holy Land. It’s prickly on the outside but beautifully soft and delicious inside.

For those of us who are used to men and women who eff and blind at the smartest occasions, it may be hard to realise that in many cultures swearing is unacceptable – certainly in mixed company. Even in tough-talking Russia, a woman would never use an expletive; she is more likely, when upset, to say “blin” (a kind of sweet pancake), the equivalent of saying “sugar”.

Many African languages have no words for “please” and “thank you”, but this doesn’t reflect an ingrained rudeness; it’s more that such statements are seen as unnecessary between individuals who already have a powerful obligation to provide for each other. A similar bluntness can be found in Germany and Scandinavia, where pussyfooting around with extra little attempts to ingratiate is seen as unnecessary. In all these places it’s all too easy to fall into thinking that everyone’s rude – when from their point of view they’re just being clear and to the point.

Certain cultures use teasing as a way of establishing friendship. Argentinians may be surprisingly derogatory about your weight or choice of clothes, but don’t take offence: it just means they are relaxing with you. Australians, similarly, may have a go at pretty much anything. Don’t take it personally: tease back, within careful limits.
It’s okay for an Aussie to call an Englishman a “whingeing Pom” and be rude about his country’s warm beer, terrible weather or lamentable cricket team; but criticise his wine, his culture or pretty much any aspect of his native sporting ability and the laughter may suddenly stop.

Be careful, likewise, of joining in with self-deprecating cultures. A liberal Israeli in Tel Aviv may laugh at the “beardy-weirdies” of Jerusalem, or an Egyptian mock the tiresomeness of his bureaucracy, but you crack your own jokes about these things at your peril.

Never forget that even within a single language, words have different meanings in different places. In Spain, “adios” means “goodbye”; in Cuba the same word is used on the street as a “Hi, hello” to passers-by. In France, “bonjour” means “hello”; in Quebec, people say it as they leave. In Portugal, a bicha is a queue; in Brazil it means “gay”. If you are constipada in Lisbon, you have a cold; in Rio you have a long time to read the newspaper in private.

The worst old/new world mix-ups probably occur in that “special relationship” between the UK and the USA. Brits travelling to the States should be careful never to say to someone at a party, “Excuse me, could I bum a fag off you?”, while Americans should remember that, in the UK, “pants” are not leg-covering garments, but something altogether skimpier and more intimate. Nor does “fanny” refer to what the English call, variously, a bottom, backside or bum.

Of course, many of the great intercultural faux pas have to do with the unintended use of slang words for sex. Stand beside a beautiful young couple in Brazil and say “Caliente, no?”, and you’ll be innocently talking about the weather; in Spain, the guy will think you fancy his girlfriend. Nor will asking a German “Bist Du heiss?” (“Are you hot?”) be taken as a question about their body temperature.

Telling an Australian you’re “rooting” for them or their team at an Aussie-rules match may not be the wisest thing to do: the word is slang for having sex. Remember, “a good root” is not a turnip.

Extracted from Going Dutch in Beijing: The International Guide to Doing the Right Thing


Local time: 18:55
Italian to English
Quite interesting indeed Oct 4, 2007

Thank you for the interesting aspects in a Small World context. Many of those things you reported above are only clichès in the end.


[Edited at 2007-10-04 10:23]


ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:55
English to French
+ ...
+1 Oct 4, 2007

Thanks, this was interesting. I could add many I know of, but I'll just add one hilarious one that many francophones are aware of.

In France, people call their children "gosses" - in Quebec, the same word means testicles!

Frenchman: So, do you have any gosses?
Quebecker: Erm... Yeah, I have two, I guess...
Frenchman: Really? I have three well-behaved, healthy ones. I'm so proud of them! Here, I'll show you a picture...
Quebecker: Erm, no thanks, I was just ordering lunch.
Frenchman: Well then, would you mind showing me yours?

Thanks - I do know of a lot of cultural differences such as in this article, but this just added some to my repertoire.

[Edited at 2007-10-04 18:51]


Nadejda Vega Cespedes  Identity Verified

Local time: 10:55
Spanish to Russian
+ ...
Modern mythology Oct 4, 2007

it may be hard to realise that in many cultures swearing is unacceptable – certainly in mixed company. Even in tough-talking Russia, a woman would never use an expletive; she is more likely, when upset, to say “blin” (a kind of sweet pancake), the equivalent of saying “sugar”.

Lovely interpretationicon_smile.gif. In reality the Russian word "blin," when used as described above, is just a replacement for another word, also monosyllabic, also starting with bl and literally meaning whore. Swearing in mixed company is something you hear on a daily basis in the middle of the street and in loud voices. The presence of small kids seldom stops anybody either. Speakers' social status makes no difference. I know a group of female university students, future economists, who publicly address each other as "pussy." And no, the Russian word leaves no room for doubt, it definitely means genitals, not the animal.


Hilde Granlund  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:55
English to Norwegian
+ ...
some of this is true :-) Oct 4, 2007

When translating instruction manuals from English into Norwegian, as I frequently do -
the English original often reads
"Please refer to xxx, please do YY , please see zzz"

Which sounds perfectly natural in English.
In Norwegian, it tends to get a bit much, I usually leave off at least half of the pleasing.
The exact same expression exists in Norwegian also - but using it in the exact same way would look funny.

I guess we ARE a rude bunchicon_lol.gif

[Edited at 2007-10-04 22:37]


Voloshka  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:55
English to Russian
+ ...
Great topic Oct 5, 2007

Tina Colquhoun wrote:

Even in tough-talking Russia, a woman would never use an expletive; she is more likely, when upset, to say “blin” (a kind of sweet pancake), the equivalent of saying “sugar”.

Sometimes you get to districts or even towns/villages where people use nothing but swearing words: they walk and talk about what they are going to have for dinner and every word is a swear-word.
My mother is a school-teacher in Ukraine and she says nowadays most kids talk to each other with swear-words only and they are not embarassed when the teacher is present. This means most parents talk swear-words at home and this is a sad norm.

About naming companies when going to international markets: in Amsterdam airport there is a stand selling bijouterie named "KOZIOL". In Russian it means "he-goat", but when not referred to "he-goat" it means something like "jerk or an asshole", sorry for this.

Several years ago we went to Poland on vacation. We visited several places and finally came to Biały Dunajec to celebrate the New Year. It was a very cold winter and we had a 6-month old daughter, but the owner of the hotel met us at doorstep and immediately started talking about The Katyn Forest Massacre ("a mass execution of Polish citizens ordered by Soviet authorities in 1940") and about Russian mafia. Gosh!
We could not believe this. He would not invite us in, but going on talking about bad stuff about Russia.
What were we supposed to do? To tell him that there are bad people in every nation? That our families neither killed nor betrayed anyone, they ourselves suffered from the Soviet regime, endured 2 famine-genocide "caused by the policies of the government of the Soviet Union under Stalin specifically targeting to destroy the Ukrainian nation as a political factor and social entity".

You know, we did not tell the owner a word (about Polish politics or Polish mafiaicon_smile.gif), just left the hotel.

This year I spent several months in the Netherlands and Dutch people amazed me: do not believe what the book "Undutchables" says, they are the sweetest people. Everybody was willing to help even while riding a bike, wherever we travelled people in all provinces were soooo friendly and thoughtful (though I learnt about some tough relations between some provinces), not a wrinkle "Russian? Go home!". I am so greatful to Dutch people.


Margreet Logmans (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:55
English to Dutch
+ ...
To Hilde and Alena Oct 5, 2007


when translating English to NL, I have the exact same problem. Too many 'please's' make the Dutch feel uncomfortable.


thanks for the nice words about my country. We proudly remember that one of the Russian Csars (was it Peter?) came to visit the Netherlands to learn how to build ships. So, here's a toast to Dutch-Russian relations - may they be warm and welcoming for years to come!



Voloshka  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:55
English to Russian
+ ...
Thank you, Hilde! Oct 5, 2007

Margreet Logmans wrote:


thanks for the nice words about my country. We proudly remember that one of the Russian Csars (was it Peter?) came to visit the Netherlands to learn how to build ships. So, here's a toast to Dutch-Russian relations - may they be warm and welcoming for years to come!


The fact is that there this general attitude "Russia as opposed to Europe and USA". This is created by politicians, but I personally has nothing to do with gas or oil. Once in a train an Italian Grandmother of a boy who played with our daughter (our daughter told a boy she was from Moscow) told her children "The Russians look like normal people"icon_smile.gif


Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:55
Italian to English
+ ...
Dialect differences in Italy Oct 5, 2007

In most of Italy (and especially Tuscany), "babbo" means "dad". In Sicily it means "idiot". This is why my Roman partner (with Tuscan mother) has NEVER called his Sicilian father "babbo".


Local time: 18:55
Italian to English
Babbo Natale^^!!?? Oct 10, 2007

Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:

In most of Italy (and especially Tuscany), "babbo" means "dad". In Sicily it means "idiot". This is why my Roman partner (with Tuscan mother) has NEVER called his Sicilian father "babbo".

WOOOOOOOOOOOW, I knew that many Italians consider Sicilian and Sardinian too as being separate languages, but I didn't know this!!!! So how do the Sicilians say Father Xmas, hehehehehehehehe!!!!
(BABBO Natale)



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